Archive | Featured articles

Some of the best articles on the blog. Typically, these have a picture. It's a low entrance requirement, I know.

March 17, 2016

Review: Criminal Minds - Beyond Borders 1x1 (US: CBS; UK: W)

Posted on March 17, 2016 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders

In the US: Wednesdays, 10/9c, CBS
In the UK: Acquired by W (Watch). No airdate yet

Americans seem to be frightened by pretty much everything. Here's a cartoon that explains the history of American fear:

To be fair, the media does help to make everything in the US seem frightening, so you can't blame them. Fortunately, CBS - the network that likes to conservatively wave a US flag with one hand while firing a 9mm with the other - is ready to first terrify everyone by confirming that everything in the US is indeed very frightening, before reassuring Americans with procedural after procedural that America's finest will catch the baddies.

Fear first, reassurance later. Just trust in the FBI et al and remember to vote against anyone who'd do anything to restrain their unfettered powers. Because then everyone will die. Everyone. They'll just be dead. Because of crime. And maybe the terrorists. And disease. Disease from the terrorists. Who are immigrants.

That's why they gave us Criminal Minds, a show that tries very, very hard to convince us it's about highly intelligent, almost utterly humorless FBI agents who'll protect American lives at all costs from a different dangerous sociopath every week, largely by reciting poetry. In actuality, it's really just mind-numbingly stupid fear-mongering. That hasn't stopped it from milking the fear-reassurance cycle for all its worth for almost as long as this 'ere blog has been running 

Of course, American fear doesn't stop at its borders. After all, no one would even think about building a great big brick wall along those borders if there was nothing out there to be frightened of, would they? Taken, for example, is quite a fun little action movie with a refreshingly unglamorous view of prostitution, violence et al, but which nevertheless considers a trip to Paris to be one of the most terrifyingly dangerous things a teenage American could ever consider doing. Yeah, kid, stay in LA. You'll be a lot safer there.

Once again, then, you have to hand it to CBS for trying to milk this literal xenophobia in as efficient a manner as possible with Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders, a spin-off from the mothership of fear. Now, this isn't the first time the network has tried to create a Criminal Minds spin-off: Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior has that honour, in which a rapid FBI anti-sociopath reaction force did the Criminal Minds formula just faster and with less blinking, as Forest Whitaker was in the cast. That rightfully died a fiery death in the ratings.

However, CBS is the king of spin-offs, having managed to get four extra shows out of CSI and about seventy out of NCIS. If at first it doesn't succeed, it'll iterate until it gets it right.

So first, as is now traditional with CBS spin-offs, we got an in-show pilot to test the waters for Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders. This features series lead, the faux king of the flag-waving patriotsCSI: NY lead Gary Sinise - and the rest of the potential new show's cast. 

That proved popular - or unhateful - enough for the show to go to full season, although either Anna Gunn had enough sense to jump ship first or the powers that be decided that she wasn't hot enough and brought in Forever's Alana de la Garza to replace her. 

Now, a full year later and we have the whole thing in its magnificent "Fear foreigners! America is best! Trust the FBI!" glory. The show's basic set-up is simple. Once again, it seems people are bored by Criminal Minds's pensive slowness so we have yet another rapid reaction force out to stop baddies. However, here, the FBI have their own shiny jet that allows them to go anywhere they want in the world to rescue Americans in trouble while simultaneously being as patronising and as racist as possible to everyone they come across.

In this first proper episode of Criminal Minds: Without Jurisdiction, we travel to Thailand - apparently now the top place for murders against Americans, not Chicago - to search for three disappeared American teenagers. Yes, three teenagers have gone missing and before even a bored, overworked US Embassy official can get away from having to deal with lost passports to see if they've simply gone to a local bar, the FBI are swooping in with their mighty jet on a no-expense spared mission to save them from their unknown fate/bar. Imagine what would happen if an American's iPhone battery ran out in Spain at the same time and Find A Friend stopped working. Would the FBI be able to cope, as it mobilised seven divisions to locate him? He can only hope - and that they bring the right kind of charging cable with them because it wasn't clear if he had an iPhone 4 or an iPhone 5 when they set out.

Anyway, before you know it, Sinise, his regulation manly, running underling (Daniel Henney), his regulation nerdy medical girl underling (Annie Funke), his regulation black bow-tie wearing tech underling (Tyler James Williams) and his regulation hot girl/cultural guide (de la Garza) are zooming around Thailand, insulting the poplace. "It's not the Thai police force's job to help Americans in trouble. It's our job," says Sinise. Erm, no, it is their job. You can check. And actually, it's definitely not your job now you're in Thailand. 

Meanwhile, de la Garza is advising everyone not to shake hands with the opposite gender because it's taboo in Thailand. Can we not do it anyway, just to show them how backward they are and how great American women are, the others wonder?

Bring them out of the middle ages just like that? De la Garza laughs at their naivety. These people are primitive and always will be. They can't be expected to be as great as the 13th best country in the world for women, even if they do get paid maternity leave, unlike American women.

She should know: she's just spent the last five weeks learning three new languages including Thai, while studying their philosophies of life and death. Look, she'll even do a Criminal Minds-proper and quote some Thai wisdom, which we'll stick on the screen to impress the viewers into thinking they're watching something smart, rather than something insanely dumb.

And then they go off and shoot things, while trying very, very hard to pretend they're smart and can read books without moving their lips.

This feels like the kind of show that's going to fail very quickly. More so, it's going to fail in part because it feels like Team America crossed with Life, The Universe And Everything, with Team Sinise going from country to country, shooting and insulting them in order, like some procedural Wowbagger The Infinitely Prolonged. And how are the foreign sales going to shape up after a season of that?

Still, Criminal Minds - which has the intellect of someone who's had their brain methodically scooped out and replaced by a combination of raspberry jelly and the Cliff's Notes for Keats' Ode On a Grecian Urn - is still going after 10 seasons, so it's entirely possible that something that sticks so close to its formula, manages to get a cameo-blessing from Joe Mantegna and allows Americans to feel simultaneously smuggly superior about their superb law enforcement services and frightened by all backward foreigners everywhere, is going to survive. 

I hope not, though.

March 16, 2016

Review: Underground 1x1 (US: WGN America)

Posted on March 16, 2016 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share


In the US: Wednesdays, 10/9c, WGN America

The global slave trade, especially the Atlantic slave trade, is one of the most horrifying aspects of relatively recent history. While slavery, of course, was nothing new and was practised in both Africa and the Middle East at the same time as in the US and Europe, it's the numbers involved and industralisation of it that makes it horrifying, with as many as 12 million people enslaved and transported until slavery was abolished by the end of the 19th century.

Yet while the Nazis and the Holocaust have been the subject of condemnatory films and TV shows for decades now, only a few US writers and producers have been willing to do something far harder and turn a similar eye onto the actions of not some other nation but the US itself. ABC's 1977 mini-series Roots was, of course, the most famous:

But since Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained in 2012, the floodgates seem to have opened, with 12 Years of Slave winning Oscars in 2014 and a remake of Roots due this year on History:

Before that, we also have WGN America's Underground, which looks at the 'underground railroad' that helped slaves in the US to escape to freedom, usually in British North America (aka Canada). The story focuses on a few principal groups:

  1. Slaves on Reed Diamond's (Journeyman, Dollhouse) plantation in Antebellum, Georgia, including Leverage's Aldis Hodge and True Blood's Jurnee Smollett-Bell. They're all planning to escape.
  2. A white lawyer (Marc Blucas from Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Necessary Roughness) and his wife (Jessica De Gouw from Arrow and Deadline Gallipoli), who are recruited to run the railroad. Guess who's going to head their way.
  3. Various slavers, bounty hunters and Good Samaritans, including L&O:SVU's Christopher Meloni. Guess what they're going to do with the escaped slaves.

On the one hand, the show takes great pains to be as realistic as possible. While none of the characters are based on historical figures (although Blucas and De Gouw's 'John and Elizabeth Hawkes' could be inspired by John and Esther Hawks), the terrible abuses meted out to slaves, general attitudes towards slaves and so on are all based in reality. The show is even shot in huts and cabins where slaves were housed back in the 19th century. When focused on that kind of detail, the show does sterling work in depicting the terrible inhumanity of it all, even if it is a bit hard for oldies like me to see and hear it all with the continual darkness and mumbling in Southern accents.

On the other, Underground also takes great pains to be as 'with it' as possible, with flashy camerawork, a modern soundtrack, time jumps, slow motion, and dialogue that's often no more than a decade old. Frequently, these are action hero slaves, not real people, and the combination of old and new styles can be quite jarring and works to the show's detriment. 

The fact it isn't based on historical figures doesn't help, either, since neither the characters nor the actors who play them are really very three-dimensional. They're representations of ideas, rather than anyone you could care about.

As of yet, we're not yet at the 'underground' stage of the narrative, so it's hard to tell whether it's going to get more interesting as a drama, rather than simply as a demonstration of man's inhumanity to man. It's WGN America, so I don't imagine the show ever becoming great. All the same, a reasonably good start, even if it didn't really make me want to watch any more of it.

March 10, 2016

Review: Slasher 1x1-1x2 (US: Chiller)

Posted on March 10, 2016 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share


In the US: Fridays, 9pm ET, Chiller
In the UK: Not yet acquired

Look left. Look right. Look left again. What do you see? 

Another US cable network making scripted TV shows, that's what. It's all Netflix's fault apparently, with its $5bn content budget forcing cable to up its game to compete.

It's got to be good, right? More choice for the consumer n'all? Certainly, we've had some good results from the likes of SundanceTV, History, WGN America and more.

But as we've seen with the likes of Crackle, WE tv, the Playstation Network, etc, there appears to be only a certain amount of talent around, both in production and commissioning, and they've already been used up. When you're starting from scratch as these networks are, you almost have to reinvent everything and if all the good people are already occupied elsewhere, you're going to be left with the inexperienced and less talented to do that.

Slasher is I think the best example of this problem so far. A Canadian-American co-production, it is the first venture into scripted TV by horror channel Chiller and is basically a distillation of every slasher movie and TV show you've ever seen, made by people who want to homage but don't have any real idea how to create something new.

It starts in the 80s with a figure wearing Zoom's mask from The Flash visiting a house at Halloween (stop me if you've heard this one before…). There he carves up a family with a great big knife, leaving only the baby daughter alive.

Fast forward to the present day and the grown-up daughter (Katie McGrath from Merlin and Dracula) returns to her home town with her husband (Brandon Jay McLaren from Graceland) and indeed her home, as she decides it's a cunning plan to move back into her parents' old house. Wouldn't you know it - no sooner does she do so then a series of copycat murders start occuring, performed by someone dressed just like her parents' killer, who is still in jail.

Visiting the bad man in question to find out more, ClariceKatie learns that maybe her parents weren't as innocent as she thought, having filmed all kinds of sex tapes in their basement with various members of the local community. Were they being punished for their sins? And are the new murders similar punishment for those who would commit one of the Se7en seven deadly sins?

Slasher is intensely stupid at pretty much every level. McLaren is a freelance journalist but gets made editor-in-chief of the local newspaper, which was instituted by a bunch of go-getting youngsters from scratch. That happens all the time, obvs. McGrath, in turn, is an artist who wants to open an art gallery. Because if you want to make the big bucks, small town art galleries are where it's at, aren't they? McGrath discovers all those hidden video tapes in her parents' entirely dust-free basement after nearly 30 years because they've been cunningly hidden until now behind a piece of cardboard. She doesn't even have a reason for visiting the mean murderer in the first instance - she just goes to see him. Because when you're moving house and setting up a new business, that's the thing you do first, isn't it? After getting the utilities set up, obviously.

You'll be wondering if she decides to move out of town once the killings start. Have a think about that one. 

Anyway, as well as the sheer lack of originality and terrible writing on display, we also face the low budget, low rent cast of the average co-prod. The almost entirely Canadian cast gets 10/10 on the Maple Syrup-ometer by containing not just one Being Erica alum in the former of McLaren, but also Erica herself, Erin Karpluk. But since cash apparently doesn't stretch to having a dialect coach, most of them can't even say 'about' without making it rhyme with 'loot'. Meanwhile, I think McGrath manages to get out only one line in 10 without sounding like she's auditioning for a remake of Father Ted

Like all those early originals for the Sci-Fi channel, TV Land et al, Slasher is unchallenging comfort food for its target audience. As the show's web site says itself: "Slasher is a mystery/horror/thriller. Think Friday the 13th meets And Then There Were None." It gives horror fans exactly what they want, which isn't really things that horrify - it's a list of tropes from every horror movie ever made that they can check off as they recognise them.

That set-up's a bit Halloween. That punishment for sexual transgression must be Friday The 13th. That outfit looks a bit Hellraiser. That scene's a bit like Silence of the Lambs.

Check, check, check, check.

However, as a piece of drama, rather than a pub quiz for horror nerds, it's dismal. Just don't go there. 



  1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 61 62 63 64 65 66 67 68 69 70 71 72 73 74 75 76 77 78 79 80 81 82 83 84 85 86 87 88 89 90 91 92 93 94 95 96 97 98 99 100 101 102 103 104 105 106 107 108 109 110 111 112 113 114 115 116 117 118 119 120 121 122 123 124 125 126 127 128 129 130 131 132 133 134 135 136 137 138 139 140 141 142 143 144 145 146 147 148 149 150 151 152 153 154 155 156 157 158 159 160 161 162 163 164 165 166 167 168 169 170 171 172 173 174 175 176 177 178 179 180 181 182 183 184 185 186 187 188 189 190 191 192 193 194 195 196 197 198 199 200 201 202 203 204 205 206 207 208 209 210 211 212 213 214 215 216 217 218 219 220 221 222 223 224 225 226 227 228 229 230 231 232 233 234 235 236 237 238 239 240 241 242 243 244 245 246 247 248 249 250 251 252 253 254 255 256 257 258 259 260 261 262 263 264 265 266 267 268 269 270 271 272 273 274 275 276 277 278 279 280 281 282 283 284 285 286 287 288 289 290 291 292 293 294 295 296 297 298 299 300 301 302 303 304 305 306 307 308 309 310 311 312 313 314 315 316 317 318 319 320 321 322 323 324 325 326 327 328 329 330 331 332 333 334 335 336 337 338 339 340 341 342 343 344 345 346 347 348 349 350 351 352 353 354 355 356 357 358 359 360 361 362 363 364 365 366 367 368 369 370 371 372 373 374 375 376 377 378 379 380 381 382 383 384 385 386 387 388 389 390 391 392 393 394 395 396 397 398 399 400 401 402  

Featured Articles

The Bold Type

Journalism for people who can't read more than a Tweet